Deuteronomy 20:1-20 – Holy War


Deuteronomy 20:1-20


In the midst of regulations on warfare are attempts to limit the loss of human life and destruction.


Deuteronomy’s treatise on war falls into four unequal sections:

1. Priestly exhortation to courage (vv. 1-4). Whether “holy war” existed in actuality or is a theological construct of Deuteronomy is debated these days. Holy war is characterized by the basic belief that war consisted of God’s battles against God’s enemies. Thus:

  • God is the one who fights and wins these wars as demonstrated in the defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Israel is to stand firm and not be afraid (Exodus 14:13).
  • The spoils of war belong to God and must not be plundered, but must be “dedicated” or “devoted” to God in the total destruction of the “ban” or herem. Israel is not to profit from war.
  • The conquered land becomes God’s “inheritance” (nahalah).
  • God grants the inheritance to Israel, though it remains God’s.

2. Deferments (vv. 5-9). Israel’s victory depends upon God’s presence, not military might. Thus, exemptions are allowed in a number of cases where important aspects of life lived in relationship to God take precedence over the requirements of military service.

3. Rules for war (vv. 10-18)

  • Though debated, many interpreters see verses 10-11 as a demand that Israel offer peace to every city it encounters; essentially the resultant policy, should they accept Israel’s terms, is slavery.
  • Verses 12-15, then, state the policy for distant cities that reject Israel’s offer of peace (men are killed, women and children become slaves, and animals and material goods become plunder).
  • Verses 16-18, then, state the policy for Israel’s neighboring cities (cities in the Promised Land) that reject Israel’s offer of peace (total destruction under the ban).

4. Limitations (vv. 19-20). The destruction of trees was common in the ancient Near East. Such total destruction was forbidden to Israel, though this is somewhat tempered by the fact that they would become Israel’s fruit trees.